VIENNA — A succession battle over the once-obscure leadership post of the world's arms control watchdog could affect attempts to persuade Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and shape the direction of nuclear nonproliferation efforts for the next four years.
Abdul Samad Minty, a South African, and Yukiya Amano of Japan are the front-runners to take over as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency after the term of Mohamed ElBaradei expires this year. The agency's leadership will be decided during a vote after a closed-door meeting of the IAEA's 35-member board here in the Austrian capital March 26-27.
By most accounts, the two officials could not be more different in their personalities and attitudes toward arms control and atomic energy, which has been growing in popularity lately as part of what scientists call the "nuclear renaissance."
The debate over the two goes to the heart of the struggle between nuclear haves and have-nots, between those in the West who define arms control as preventing emerging nations from obtaining nuclear bombs and those in the South and East who want to highlight the obligations of atomic-weapons states to disarm.
Minty, a charismatic diplomat known for his outspokenness, has emerged as the favorite of developing countries. Most are sympathetic to Iran's nuclear aspirations and suspicious of the West's attempts to deny them nuclear technology while keeping its own weapons stockpiles untouched.
Amano, a low-key technocrat, has emerged as the West's favored candidate for his commitment to restrict the agency's duties to narrow technical issues and forgo the type of opinionated diplomatic mediation practiced by ElBaradei and his predecessor, Hans Blix.
"A great director-general is one who artfully navigates the politics of the situation to permit the IAEA to fulfill its technical mission," said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation. "I think [ElBaradei] has lost that sense of balance. His speeches now cover topics far outside the mandate of the IAEA, from missile defense to the Middle East peace process."
The IAEA was set up to encourage safe nuclear technology and later became the means for verifying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which grants signatories access to nuclear technology in exchange for forgoing weapons and submitting to inspections. But the IAEA has taken on the controversial role of global troubleshooter, advocating policies for resolving disputes over nuclear technology.
"The political role that the agency has taken on has not served the agency very well," said Valerie Lincy, an analyst at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "It was meant to sound the alarm when there is a violation. But they've taken on somewhat of a political role that I don't think has necessarily helped."
Minty insists that as a representative of a country that has acquired nuclear technology, he's got the savvy to forge consensus in major disputes.
"You have to be impartial and let the facts speak for themselves," he told a group of reporters in Vienna. "The director-general has to have some political understanding because every issue that you deal with . . . has political dimension."
Amano defines the agency more narrowly as a body to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote the safe use of nuclear energy.
"The mandate has been decided by statute," he said in a brief interview. "The activities of the director-general are under the control of the board of governors."
So far the U.S. is backing Amano, mostly "because of its long-standing relationship with Japan," said an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter. But some U.S. and U.N. officials and arms control experts harbor doubts about what kind of leadership he would provide.
"The fear is that he would be inclined to take his orders from the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, rather than being the kind of independent leader required for a multilateral organization," the U.S. official said.
And though many are weary of the political controversies ElBaradei stirred up with candid remarks about the Israeli nuclear program and the obligations of nuclear states to disarm, having a charismatic figure at the helm invigorated staffers and enlivened the otherwise colorless issue of international arms control.
Though seeking compliance with technical considerations is important, the director-general also "has an opportunity and responsibility to provide leadership and offer solutions to vexing issues," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn.
Under ElBaradei, who along with the agency was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, the IAEA became one of the world's most high-profile international organizations. Among leaders of the many international organizations founded after World War II, its chief is arguably second in stature only to the U.N. secretary-general.
"The IAEA is not just the watchdog of compliance," said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center at Harvard University. "As much as any other actor in the system, it is a guardian of the global nuclear order. Who else in this world has better mandate, standing and competence to ask and answer questions about how the world is doing the minimizing risks and maximizing advantages of all things nuclear?"
With cloudy prospects for either candidate, some speculate that a dark horse may emerge during next week's meetings. "At this point," said Kimball, "neither seems to have sufficiently broad geographical support at the IAEA."